CSUN professors, students and about 160 public school teachers attended the 5th Annual Southern California Forum on Holocaust Education, called “Teaching About the Holocaust,” at CSUN March 24-26, sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Its purpose was to teach secondary school teachers how they can incorporate the Holocaust into their curriculums and be better informed on the topic when teaching students.
Stephen Feinberg, director of National Outreach Education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, helped organize the event.
“It is to help classroom teachers understand the complexity of the history, access documentation, look at electronic sources of information, help them in their teaching, and expand their historical knowledge of this piece of history,” Feinberg said. “This is a very thorough introduction to the breadth and the depth of Holocaust history.”
Feinberg said there is no national museum on the Holocaust in Germany like the one in Washington, D.C.
“There are a variety of memorial sites, at (camps) and in Berlin at the old offices of the Gestapo, but there is not yet a Holocaust museum,” Feinberg said. “The (Washington, D.C.) museum was chartered by Congress, and it is our nation’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. We were chartered to serve as a place of remembrance, and a place of education.”
The museum has received about two million visitors a year since it opened in 1993, Feinberg said.
Feinberg said that information can be found on the Holocaust in secondary school textbooks now, but 20 years ago, when the secondary school teachers of today were in school, it was not widely taught.
“What is needed is teacher training,” Feinberg said. “(For) most teachers who teach history in the United States, when they were in school, there were no courses on the Holocaust. They need to get a deeper understanding of the complexity of this history, and what we do is present methodological considerations that teachers should take into account prior to teaching this history.”
Claudia Koonz, history professor at Duke University, was the first speaker at the weekend seminar.
She discussed various ways of teaching the Holocaust, as well as ways of letting students see how people dissented to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Koonz said no German soldiers were ever court marshaled for refusing to kill others, and there was a very specific purpose for this.
“If the Nazis had punished dissent, that would have elevated it to moral principle,” Koonz said. “By ridiculing dissenters, (they) made it a personal weakness. That was, I think, a calculated strategy.”
Teachers should tell their students about the courageous few who objected and helped Jews, and also about the climate that made it difficult for Germans to engage in acts of opposition, Koonz said.
Teachers in the audience asked Koonz how they should respond to difficult questions posed by their students regarding the Holocaust, such as how to explain Hitler’s appearance, why Germans agreed to kill Jews and others, and why more revolts by the oppressed minorities didn’t take place.
Lesser known details were also discussed, like the theory that Hitler had Jewish ancestry.
Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum told firsthand accounts of being in ghettos, slave labor camps, cattle cars, death marches, and of being shot in the head. He lost most of his family from 1941-45.
“I have no family gravestones, so I go visit the (Holocaust) museum to see my family,” Greenbaum said.
Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation sent a crew to film Greenbaum’s testimony.
At the time, he said he promised to tell the story of what happened, and has been doing it ever since.
Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program at CSUN, attended the seminar, which she said was paid for by an anonymous donor.
“They gave millions of dollars to set up teacher forums, and they wanted one here at CSUN,” Myers said. “The focus is not the Holocaust and what happened, but how to teach it, so we have professors who have expertise in the Holocaust.”
“It’s a good deal for public school teachers,” Myers said about the seminar. “You don’t have to teach, and you get your substitute paid for. You can ask questions to learn how to teach the Holocaust more effectively.”
Public school teachers who registered received a bag of free teaching materials and books, including “The Nazi Conscience,” written by Koonz.
At CSUN, there are several history and Jewish studies classes entirely devoted to the study of the Holocaust.
The class “Jewish Identity in the U.S.” includes a week of curriculum on how the Holocaust has affected Jewish identity in the United States, Myers said.
The Jewish studies minor currently offers 22 classes, and a major in modern Jewish studies will be offered beginning next fall.
Aimee Spurbeck-Boian, a ninth and 10th grade honors English teacher at Royal High School in Simi Valley, requires her students to read the novel “Night,” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in her classes.
“I try to focus on various perspectives of the Holocaust, like the survivor’s story, and the point of view of the soldier, so they’ll see different points of view,” Spurbeck-Boian said. “I’ve always been fascinated with the Holocaust, and I’m excited to be able to teach it. It has a big impact on my students every year. I came to this to hopefully learn more.”
Rick Rehhaut, junior history major at CSUN, attended the seminar at the suggestion of his teacher, Jody Myers.
“I’m Jewish and I always find all this stuff just so real,” Rehhaut said. “My grandparents came to America from Poland right after World War I. The speakers are incredible.”
He plans on being a history teacher after college.
Koonz described the conditions Germans experienced under Hitler’s rule to try to explain why they engaged in the killing of innocent people.
“They thought they had done their duty,” Koonz said. “They had done tough, hard jobs. It is really psychologically hard to shoot infants. They truly believed it was necessary. They were tormented by it.”
Koonz explained that many ordinary citizens came to the aid of Jewish people.
“It’s really important to remember that only 250,000 Jews lived in Germany in 1939,” she said. “Half the German Jews had left by 1939. They’d had a warning. One of the reasons that so many got out was because they had good German Christian friends who helped them.”
Koonz said that punishment for the perpetrators of the murders during this period never took place, to a large extent.
“A lot of Germans were never tried because the Cold War meant that we needed those Germans to become our allies, and so suddenly all respect was to be shown to German people, but the atrocities never left the camp.”
To prevent genocide and other crimes like those committed during the Holocaust, Koonz said more emphasis should be placed on accountability.
“I think what we should do more of is talk about the ways in which our country has been a perpetrator country,” Koonz said. “The majority has followed along. The United States, after World War I, didn’t care at all about rescuing Jews. No country in the world cared enough about the Jews to offer them visas.”
Other reasons crimes against entire groups of people take place is because of complacent, self-interested political leaders and their civilian followers under the guise of patriotism, Koonz said.
“We’re reminded over and over again how unresponsive politicians are, and narrowly conceived (they are), and how easily people get led by ‘rally round the flag,'” Koonz said. “It’s really frightening.”
The event was made possible by cooperation with the Michael D. Eisner College of Education.